There and back again
While fans of the Dead Island franchise try to work out exactly what is happening with Dead Island 2 – a game that's doing a great impression of being a feline owned by Erwin Schrödinger – Deep Silver and Techland have decided to hold back the hordes of rabid fans by releasing this remastered collection of the first two Dead Island titles. Thankfully, they've decided against including the dire Escape from Dead Island, instead choosing to bundle up the original game, Dead Island: Riptide, all the DLC, and a new spin-off in the form of Dead Island: Retro Revenge.
Taking the all-new title for a spin first, Dead Island: Retro Revenge is a side-scrolling runner where the protagonist is taking out zombie hordes that are situated on one of three "lanes." You skip up or down between the lanes, avoiding barriers and taking out enemies with one of the four attacks mapped to the face buttons. Different enemies require different attacks and since you can only suffer three hits before you die and with health pickups being few and far between, you had better be sure that you're using the right attack for the right opponent. The problem is that there's no indication as to which type of attack will work for which enemy and in some cases – with one type of exploding enemy specifically - it doesn't matter anyway, since they'll explode and still damage you. You do have a limited use magic attack and weapon attack to hand, but even with that in mind, it's never all that much fun and feels a little bit like a mini-game that you'd find built in to a larger title. The fact that the publisher's press release states that is has "plenty of depth" borders on hilarity, given that the whole thing is incredibly repetitive and about as deep as a shallow puddle.
Fortunately, it isn't supposed to be the highlight of the set. That honour is reserved for the two full game remasters. When it comes to reviewing those, the task is made somewhat tricky by the fact that the only real changes that really affect the two games are visual. There's higher quality textures, improved shading, extra anti-aliasing, improved character models, new motion blur effects, and UI changes to ensure a uniform look to the menus of the two games. It's all very nice and the differences are pretty clear to see from the outset. Some stunning vistas are on display and there's a really atmospheric feel brought to the fore by the visual changes. When you're wandering across the sandy beaches of the early stages of the original game, you can practically see the heat haze radiating off relevant surfaces and you'll be reaching for the sunblock. In Riptide, things are equally as impressive. From the very early exchanges, you can feel the improvements as opposed to seeing them. Just wander through the jungle for a while and you'll notice how oppressive the boughs of the trees overhead have become. When zipping around in a vehicle and sadly, when sometimes travelling on foot, there is noticeable pop-up as items that really aren't that far away gradually draw in as you approach. It isn't something that destroys the illusion, but it's definitely noticeable. More concerningly, there are waves of screen tearing to be found across both games. Framerates stay fixed without a problem, but it's clear that's come at a cost.
So with very little changes to the actual games aside from a coat of paint, we're left simply to talk about how things play. Given that Dead Island was released back in 2011, you'd expect things to have moved on a little since then in terms of gameplay developments. A hundred and one open-world titles have been released since then and whether they've featured zombie invasions or not, what we didn't expect to see is how poorly Dead Island has aged in the face of them. What's here is a game that – while it has a decent premise – consists of far too many fetch and carry quests, not all of which make a great deal of sense. Sinamoi tells you that the group needs water, so you trek across the island and back again with some water. Then he tells you that they need food, so you trek across the island and back again with food when if you'd known, you could have got it while you were out the first time. Then you have to go and get a truck, so you trek across the island to fetch it. Then it needs to be upgraded, so you trek across the island to someone who can do that. All the while, every other NPC has given you a side mission that also involves trekking across the island to find something or someone that they've lost. It quickly becomes a chore.
One thing that doesn't help outside of the mission structure is the hit-and-miss feel of the combat. You can find and make some weird and wonderful weapons, power up your skills to make yourself more deadly in order take on the zombie hordes single-handedly. Which is handy, since everybody else in the game is more than happy to sit on their backside giving you orders or begging for your help. The apparent apathy of the NPCs regarding their impending demise means that you have plenty of time to examine the many different ways that you can kill a zombie. With a modified baseball bat loaded with nails you'd expect to do some nice damage, but there are times when you'll swing and miss despite being well within range and others where you'll knock the guy's head clean off despite being yards short. At other times, you'll slash at an enemy with a cleaver and watch as the game goes into slow-motion mode – which you'd expect would indicate that you'd done something really good – only for that to abruptly end and the zombie to still be marching toward you. Apart from super-powerful enemies, you'll generally be able to get away with kicking your foes away to make them stumble or fall, then attacking them with your weapon of choice, repeating the performance every time they threaten to attack. As long as you don't get overrun, this works. If you do become overrun and they manage to knock you over, the enemies all freeze on the spot with their attack logic reset so if they were swinging at you, they go back to standing stock still, refusing to move again until a few seconds after you're back on your feet. It's bizarre, to say the least.
Even with these problems, there is fun to be had, just not all that much of it. It really doesn't take very long for either game's problems to show through and while there's more entertainment to be had in online co-op, the bigger issues do quickly put paid to it. Things just aren't that well finessed in any area. Combat has problems outside of the ones we've mentioned, with things like the weapon break and repair system being poorly implemented. Repairing weapons – which wear out if you so much as look at them - costs hundreds of dollars for some reason and weapon creation doesn't make so much sense either. Find a workbench, a blueprint, and the required parts to make a new weapon and you'll be charged ridiculous sums to actually go through the creation process. You have all the parts and the instructions and the tools, so why does it cost anything? It may seem like a small thing – especially given that people just seem to have left tens of thousands of dollars of cash laying around in literally anything that would hold money, such as trash cans - but both games are riddled with these sorts of tiny issues that cause the fabric of the game world to gradually pull apart, exposing the mish-mash of systems beneath that don't necessarily work all that well together.
There's also the problem that the combat isn't all that punishing. Facing off against a larger enemy in Riptide, he might take you down with his brutal clubbing swing. After a very short period of loading, you'll be taken right back into the action only a short distance away from where you were, having had some of your cash deducted for the trouble. The problem is that the enemy's health doesn't regenerate. What this means is that you can beat most enemies in the game relatively easily, as long as you don't mind the death/reload loop. Take out 20% of their health. Die. Reload. Take out another 20% of their health. Die. Reload. Repeat another three times and you've won. This isn't to say that the gameplay is challenge-free - far from it - but there's a distinct and constant feeling that you're being given an easy route through in terms of defending yourself, while the lackluster mission structure and storyline (in both games) is in place simply as an inconvenience to overly extend your playing time. Take out half of the missions and make the battles more challenging and the game would be the better for it. Alas, that isn't what's happened.